Not so tough after all

Robert Buckland's sentencing reforms are more balanced than expected

Since the weekend, the headlines have all pointed in one direction:

But the government’s plans for sentencing reform in England and Wales, published this morning, appear to be much more balanced than reporters were led to believe.

I say “appear to be” because although the Ministry of Justice sent a press release to selected journalists yesterday my request for an advance copy of their White Paper was turned down. Neither document is on the Ministry of Justice website at time of writing although the justice secretary Robert Buckland is doing a round of interviews this morning.

Certainly, the government’s proposals would allow courts to impose what’s called a whole life order on a mass murderer like Hashem Abedi (pictured). Abedi, 23, helped his brother to plan the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Because he was under 21 at the time, the court had to specify a term before he can be considered for parole. Now, whole life orders will be extended to those aged between 18 and 20.

Abedi’s minimum term was 55 years. The difference between that and a whole life order is largely symbolic. But prisoners who know they will be released only in the case of great age or infirmity have little incentive not to kill other prisoners or prison officers.

There are other tough-sounding measures. Serious and violent prisoners will have to wait until they have served two-thirds of their sentences before release. Burglars, robbers and thieves will have to wear electronic tracking devices when freed on licence.

But as well as promising to increase maximum terms, Buckland has said that vulnerable offenders who do not pose a risk to public safety will be offered treatment for mental health problem and addiction to alcohol or drugs.

There are plans to pilot more problem-solving courts which, instead of punishing offenders, work closely with local authority social services departments to provide them with treatment. I visited one last year.

Community sentences are to be lengthened, allowing curfews to be imposed for two years instead of 12 months. Although offenders might not be allowed to leave home for more than four hours a day at weekends, they would go to work during the week.

By encouraging courts to pass community sentences instead of sending offenders to prison, the government will make considerable financial savings. But there is nothing in the Ministry of Justice press release to suggest that these savings will be used to recruit the additional probation officers who’ll be needed to operate these schemes.

Even so, John Bache of the Magistrates’ Association found the government’s announcement encouraging:

The focus in this White Paper on problem-solving courts and providing treatment for people with mental health issues and alcohol or drug addictions is very welcome. A third of people on a community sentence report having mental health issues or a drug addiction. Yet less than 1% of community sentences include mental health treatment and only 6% include drug treatment, as these services are simply not available in many areas. This has to change if we want community sentences to be effective in helping offenders to turn their lives around, and on these issues this White Paper is certainly a positive step in the right direction.

And Labour’s shadow justice secretary, David Lammy MP, made no criticism of specific proposals.

It is totally hypocritical for Boris Johnson to play tough on law and order in the same week that he ordered his MPs to vote to break the law. The Conservatives' rhetoric on crime never lives up to the reality.

Under this government we have the lowest charging rate for reported crimes since records began. Labour will scrutinise this proposed legislation on sentencing closely. Our priority is to keep the British public safe.

A number of the proposals are summarised in the government’s press release. I have edited the summaries for clarity, syntax and spelling but I have not been able to check them against the White Paper. They are:

  • Whole life orders for 18-20-year olds in exceptional cases, to reflect the gravity of crimes such as terrorism that lead to mass loss of life.

  • New powers to halt the automatic release of offenders who pose a terrorist threat or a danger to the public.

  • Reducing opportunities for over-18s who were convicted of murder below that age to have their minimum terms reviewed.

  • Ending the release halfway through their sentences of offenders sentenced to between four and seven years for crimes such as rape, manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harms with intent. In future, these offenders will be released after serving two-thirds of their sentences.

  • When setting the minimum terms for young people aged 15 to 17 convicted of murder, increasing the starting point from 12 years to two-thirds of the equivalent starting point for adults.

  • Increasing minimum terms for offenders given life sentences for offences other than murder by requiring judges to base their calculations on two-thirds of the equivalent determinate sentence, rather than half as now.

  • Reducing the court’s discretion to pass sentences below the minimum term for repeat offenders in cases such as “third-strike” burglary and “two-strike” knife possession.

  • Piloting problem-solving court models in up to five courts so that repeat offenders are less likely to receive prison sentences.

  • Making full use of tagging technologies.

  • Piloting new ways of delivering timely and high-quality pre-sentence reports.

  • Launching a national call for evidence to obtain a clearer picture of how the justice system supports offenders with neurodivergent conditions, such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia.

  • Reducing the rehabilitation period after which convictions will not be disclosed to employers.

Robert Buckland said:

Our measures will ensure the most serious violent and sexual offenders get the prison time they deserve, while new community interventions and changes to rules around criminal records will help boost rehabilitation and cut reoffending — which means creating fewer victims.

Let’s see if he can hold that balance.

Update 1045 BST: the White Paper has now been published.

Further update: CJ McKinney has written a very thoughtful assessment of the launch event.